CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago Public Schools has directed parents to keep their students home again on Friday as the Chicago Teachers Union appears to move closer to a strike.
"CTU leadership continues to direct staff to remain home. Therefore, we must ask parents to continue keeping your children home as we are unable to guarantee sufficient staffing to safely cover in-person learning. Remote learning will continue tomorrow, Fri., 1/29.," CPS said in a tweet Thursday evening.
The CTU said its members want to be vaccinated and feel safe before returning to in-person learning.
With CPS and the teachers union failing to reach a deal on the return to in-person learning, K-8 teachers did not report to classrooms on Wednesday or Thursday as the district had hoped.
Instead, all students will remain remote, including pre-K and cluster students.
"Education absolutely is the great equalizer, and we see the data, too many of our kids are falling woefully behind," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.
Mayor Lightfoot said the city and school district will remain at the bargaining table but expressed concerns regarding the level of discussions. She also said they have not changed their plans for in-person learning to resume for kindergarten through 8th grade students on Monday.
"I think we have an obligation to parents and to the students to move aggressively," Mayor Lightfoot said. "We've been at the table every this week, but 40 minutes a day is not enough, so we've got to move aggressively, we've got to be at the table for as long as it takes to get a deal done."
The CTU said progress is being made on cleaning protocols, masking and ventilation that could lead to a deal.
CPS insisted their plan to open schools for more in-person learning has been vetted by the city's health department and is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
"Under the district's plan, we are going to offer rapid COVID testing to employees twice a month," said Dr. Janice Jackson, CPS CEO. "We will be offering free monthly COVID testing for students who live in the 10 highest COVID positivity areas by zip code, and when the district starts to receive vaccines directly from the federal government, we will also prioritize staff working in those hardest hit communities."
And Dr. Anthony Fauci weighed in on the topic on "Good Morning America" Thursday.
"Obviously we want to get the teachers vaccinated. We want to make sure they have the resources to do it correctly, but when you look at the history of how this virus is moving in schools, it seems to be less spreading there than it is in the community," he said.
Both sides have agreed to mediation, and the teachers union says a strike is an absolute last resort. Still, safety remains the top issue. The CTU wants far more specific safety thresholds to be reached before they tell their members to back inside schools. This includes test positivity rates dropping below 3% for entire zip codes schools are in, safety protocols being enforced and intense focus on vaccinations for teachers and staff.
"Reopening is not the argument. The discussion, the debate is safety. That's it," CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said. "When we implement a safe agreement phase in vaccines, a health metric, accommodations that meet the needs of medically vulnerable households ... those things are important."
CPS maintains it's gone above and beyond to address union needs.
"We believe that our latest proposal to the union can serve as a foundation to a deal," said Jackson. "Frankly, there is no good reason why we shouldn't have an agreement at this time right now."
Wednesday morning, some CPS parents launched a petition drive and call-in campaign to convince Mayor Lori Lightfoot to stand down from what they're calling a dangerous push to return teachers to school buildings this week.
"These past few days, I've been teaching outside, and my scholars have given me hope. When they see me fighting for what's right for myself," CPS teacher Dwayne Reed said. "It's not that we don't want to reopen. We do; we want to see our kids, we want to hug them, we want to be able to do all this. We just want to do it the safest way possible."
The Chicago Principals & Administrators Association shared its own proposal Wednesday for a return to in-person learning which would involve a phased-in approach to bridge the divide between the district and the teacher's union. A recent survey put out by the association said two-thirds of school heads think CPS' plans are inadequate.
"Open a small group of 50 to 100 in-person pilot schools and make COVID-19 vaccinations a priority for the staff in that pilot group," said Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. "Second, focus the district's human and material resources on insuring the success of the pilot schools. Three, if successful, expand the pilot every few weeks as groups of schools demonstrate preparedness and readiness for in-person learning."
Dr. Anna Volerman, a CPS parent and doctor, said she's concerned this back and forth has put students in the middle.
"We understand the potential exposures, we understand the effects of COVID, and at the same time we understand the effects of being at home and being at school for children and for teachers and for staff," she said.
Special Education classroom assistants (SECA), among the first to return to the classroom, also added their voice to the issue.
"We would like the opportunity to be vaccinated before returning to school," said SECA Anthony Gonzalez. "And children above the age of 16, 16 and above, they should be vaccinated before returning to school."
Fewer than 20% of CPS students have chosen to return to in-person learning so far. Tuesday, a group of CPS parents who are also healthcare workers released an op-ed in support of a return to the classroom, stating it's not necessary to wait for vaccines to come.
"If school reopening is approached collaboratively, with all stakeholders -- including parents -- at the table, schools can be opened safely. As a city, we must prioritize our youth and invest in their future. During this challenging time, getting children back in the classroom is the number one way to show this commitment," the op-ed said in part.
The roughly 355,000-student district, which turned to full-time online instruction last March because of the pandemic, has gradually welcomed students back. Thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education students resumed in-person learning earlier this month, and teachers who didn't return to their classrooms were punished.
CPS teachers were all eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, but they are not scheduled to begin getting it until February.